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This year's Fort Lauderdale Film Festival kicks off with a week on South Beach

But despite its tendency toward blandness, Herman, U.S.A. offers a number of virtues. The acting is solid and honest, led by O'Keefe and Graham as the small-town pals that should be lovers. Their scenes together are little gems of buried longings and miscommunications. Dunn and the other lovelorn lads also shine. To their and Semans's credit, these characters really do seem to have lived their lives together, sharing high school football triumphs and midlife despair. As an added treat, this ensemble actually includes what looks like real people, a welcome relief from the usual pouty-lipped starlets and chiseled hunks we seem to get nowadays at every other turn. Semans's direction is assured and understated, backed by some golden-tone camera work from Ross Berryman and a bittersweet Copeland-like score from Stephen Graziano. This is a family film that could find a solid audience, if only there were ways to reach that audience in today's overhyped marketplace.

Blue Moon
Magical realism has long been a staple of Latin-American fiction. Maybe that's why the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival decided to screen John Gallagher's Blue Moon. Like the current comedy Woman On Top, Gallagher's tale of love lost and regained is balanced on a fantastic premise, in this case that wishes can come true if spoken during that rare occurrence, a blue moon. But fairy tales are never without dark shadows, and Blue Moon's tale is no exception.

The film begins at a christening that feels like a wake. World-weary Frank, an Italian-American granddad facing a bleak retirement, seems uninterested in anything but drinking with his old neighborhood pals while his proper wife, Maggie, fumes. Their conflict continues at home until Maggie decides they should head for their old place in the Catskills to try to rekindle their love. But Frank is still Frank, mountains or no mountains, and her attempts to romance him fail. As a rare blue moon rises over the mountaintops, Maggie wishes something would remind them of the love they once shared.

Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Ben Gazzara and Rita Moreno remember life and love many moons ago
Ben Gazzara and Rita Moreno remember life and love many moons ago

Details

Herman, U.S.A. screens at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, October 22; Bro screens 9:00 p.m. Wednesday, October 18, and Friday, October 20, at Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-373-1562. The films also will be shown numerous times, along with Blue Moon, at the main venue, Galleria Cinema, 2630 E Sunrise Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, between November 1 and 12; call 800-745-4621.

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Enter comic complications when a retro-clad young couple, Mac and Peggy, head for the hills with problems of their own. Working-class Mac is reluctant to pop the question to high-born Peggy, who can't understand why he delays. With ring in pocket, Mac figures he'll be able to woo Peggy properly in a romantic setting, so off they go to the same rustic retreat, unaware Frank and Maggie are sleeping in the bedroom upstairs. In the resulting brouhaha, both couples believe they have a right to be there: Frank and Maggie claim they own the place; Mac and Peggy say they've rented it and produce a receipt from the very same owner who rented the house to Frank and Maggie years before. The dilemma become even more complex as Frank and Maggie remember they used to be called Mac and Peggy when they were young.

Well, you can guess the rest. Because of Maggie's blue-moon wish, she has managed to conjure Frank and Maggie when they were young lovers. Suddenly the older couple has the chance to explain themselves to their younger mates, while the young pair can catch a glimpse of what will happen in their lives. The foursome gleefully recalls their courtship before getting down to some painful revelations about Frank/Mac's abuse by his alcoholic, violent father, the source of all his suffering.

Blue Moon clearly is meant to be a character-driven tale, and director Gallagher gets a lot of help from his solid cast of veterans and newcomers. Show-biz legends Ben Gazzara, a multiple Tony Award winner, and Rita Moreno, the only actor to have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy, shine as Frank and Maggie with support coming from Brian Vincent and Alanna Ubach as Mac and Peggy. Film buffs also will pick out a number of notables in the supporting cast: Burt Young, Heather Matarazzo, and The Sopranos' Vincent Pastore make brief but notable appearances in the early scenes, before the story settles into its four-way moonlit conversation.

Gallagher has put together a film with a lot of old-fashioned charm and pacing, relying on his actors to tell the story without much directorial intrusion. There isn't any fancy editing or jazzy camera work here, just a steady confidence and some unobtrusive staging that works quite well for this kind of gauzy, dreamy material. Gallagher is ably abetted by cinematographer Craig DiBona's shadowy lighting and Stephen Endleman's plaintive, evocative music, a welcome respite from the by-the-throat “you will feel this now” style of movie music.

I wish I could be as complimentary about the script. While Gallagher brings considerable skill as a director, his writing talents are less successful. Blue Moontakes its characters seriously, but it never manages to create unique individuals, just types with problems that seem exceptionally generic: abusive father, working stiff/society babe class conflict. Frank's retirement angst is never explored, and Maggie's personal conflicts are ignored entirely, except for her frustrations with Frank. These characters feel wooden, and even the considerable gifts of Gazzara, Moreno, and company can't make them as soulful and dimensioned as they need to be.

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